Pushy plants

June 02, 2003|by Dorry Baird Norris

Too much of a good thing

The carefully stitched sampler reads: "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes. Erasmus." This gift from my daughter Holly succinctly identifies one of my major weaknesses - books, especially used books.

I never met a used book sale I didn't like. They are treasure troves - books I meant to buy or read and never got around to, or books I never knew existed.

A recent find is "Passalong Plants," by Steve Bender and Felder Rushing. This chatty and amusing book by two experienced southern gardeners describes 117 traditional, easy to grow, plants that are passed along by family and friends without the benefit of commercial marketers.


The chapter entitled "Plants that Get Away - or Plants That Pass Themselves Along," about pushy plants, left out many of my favorite but aggressive herbs. They did, however, mention the tawny day lily - whose flowers and buds add color and flavor to salads and stir-fries - as well as bee balm - so good for tea-making that during the American Revolution it was dubbed Oswego Tea. And I shall certainly heed their warning that the bulbs of Star of Bethlehem that I plan to install in the Bible Garden can, in the wink of an eye, become a weed, as will the soapwort in our Dye Bed.

Look around the herb garden and discover an array of other plants that go about the process of procreation with uninhibited exuberance, either through abundant seed production or underground runners.

Fennel, symbol of fickleness, rising tall and straight, creates a perfect garden backdrop but it strews its seeds far and wide. Oh, I know I could cut the seed heads off before they ripen; but then I would miss the birds that forage for those seeds. The seedlings must be dug out while they are very small before they have a chance to send down their long slender tap-roots deeply into the soil and require major excavation to get rid of them.

Anise hyssop, with its purple flower stalks, makes a fine tea and attracts butterflies. The spent flower heads can be cut off; in fact the whole plant can be cut back after it blooms, for another flush of flowers. Anise hyssop seedlings are easily uprooted to be passed on or consigned to the compost heap.

Flat-leafed garlic chives are sneaky! The white flower heads, called umbels, are not only beautiful but sweetly scented. I always mean to cut the flowers down, but before I get around to it the opening seed heads turn into delicate, papery tan "flowers." By then it's too late - and I know that by spring I will be spending major time digging out seedlings.

Lemon balm, like all the mints, spreads by underground runners but it also produces fine crop of seeds. Over the years I've learned to cut the lemon balm back by two-thirds as soon as the flowers begin to fade. This is a containment battle I seem to be winning. Other mints are only allowed in the garden in pots.

A surprise spreader is red-rooted madder, that wonderful plant that in Colonial times was the source of turkey red dye. It thrives enthusiastically in our Dye Bed by the chimney. The tiny plant I set out two years ago suddenly covers five square feet and is still reaching out. The rough, hairy stems cover anything in their path and not amenable to being confined by stakes and twine. If you decide you can't live without this one make sure you give it plenty of space.

They also should post a warning sign on every pot of white Jupiter's Beard. It spreads wildly. The root gets as thick as a tree trunk, and any piece left in the ground will sprout. It is fragrant but not worth the trouble.

So there you have it, a few herbs to "pass-along" - but only if you include warnings about their proclivity for unbounded reproduction.

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